Skip to content

Empathy for the Devil

A terrorism scholar gets up-close-and-personal with a war criminal

“I become a soldier if I am truly threatened. If the plane goes down, you want me at the controls,” wrote Jessica Stern, masterful decoder of the minds of terrorists, in her 2010 memoir. Declaratively titled Denial: A Memoir of Terror, the book came seven years after the volume that landed her a comfortable roost among the ranks of terrorism experts, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. Stern had won wide acclaim and respect in the aftermath of 9/11, when the fever for explaining the mystery of militants was high. That book, like others in the genre, glibly connects religious terrorism (read Islamism) to something particular and inherent in ideology rather than the banal greed for power. The success of the book yielded bounties for Stern; she was lecturing at Harvard and ultimately set up with a professorship at Boston University’s Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies. With regular radio and television appearances, Stern had managed to make a brand; like Jessica Chastain of Zero Dark Thirty, she could save America by deciphering terrorists.

Stern’s terrorist-whisperer gig was good for more than a decade. These were the Islamist terror years, a time efficient in justifying everything; two wars and the killing of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans, in the name of curtailing terrorism. Her memoir delved into her motivations for studying terrorists, connecting her fascination with them to abuse and sexual assault she suffered in childhood. It was her ability to see her own abusers in the terrorists she studied that made her so adept at really understanding them, she asserted. In 2015 Stern came out with another book ISIS: The State of Terror, co-authored with J.M. Berger, the continued de-coding of terrorists still proving to be a lucrative enterprise.

More recently, the “defeat” of ISIS and the emergence of domestic white supremacist terrorism lowered the profiles of the cabal of Islamist terror experts, Stern among them. Personal events, we learn from her latest book My War Criminal: Personal Encounters with an Architect of Genocide also played a part. The birth of her son made it untenable for her to go terrorist hunting as in the old days. (“I vowed to never again take those kinds of risks.”) Stern’s solution was to switch to the already apprehended and already convicted war criminals. “Some years ago, I decided that the best way to deploy this skill was to focus on imprisoned perpetrators,” she writes, since it would be “safer than interviewing terrorists in the field,” while still in “continuity with my lifelong work.”

Stern’s war criminal of choice is Radovan Karadžić, the man responsible for engineering the massacre of thousands of Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in July 1995. Since probing the motivations of “her” war criminal (the possessive term simply came to her during “intense and unusually prolonged” conversations with Karadžić) is less inherently action-packed than the hunt for Muslim terrorists, Stern adds her own theatrics. Karadžić, the man who appears for interviews in a “maroon shirt he might have slept in, and a ratty old-man sweater,” carrying a milk crate full of snacks, becomes tall and polite with “striking features” “towering above his domain.” He exudes power, which draws Stern in. He doesn’t have to work particularly hard; a few minutes into their first rendezvous in a prison room in The Hague, Stern is smitten. As she describes it, “That was the first time I fell in. It lasted for a while.” In later meetings there are energy healing sessions disturbingly riven with erotic tension: “under his gaze, I regressed. I did as I was told. Like an obedient child, or a star student,” Stern says. Not to worry, however—it’s all a part of Stern’s technique, which involves “embracing the perpetrator’s subjectivity.” That allows her to “come fully to know how he thinks.”

He appears for interviews in a “maroon shirt he might have slept in, and a ratty old-man sweater.” He exudes power, which draws Stern in.

Beyond their squirm-inducing oddity, these confessions all hint that My War Criminal is not a telling of Karadžić’s story, or of his motivations, but the story of a seduction, one in which a has-been killer manages to ensnare a scholar into the realm of doubt and absolution. Indeed, in due course Stern begins to parrot alarming denials of the genocide of which her war criminal is convicted.

By page 41 she is already presenting what sounds terribly like a “both sides” argument to a genocide that was clearly engineered by one. One pathway to hatred she rationalizes “is when a dominant ethnic group fears losing its status and privileges. Just as Bosnian Serbs feared losing their status as the dominant demographic group.” Whatever subjective mind tricks Stern may have been deploying, this conclusion is in the words of University of Sarajevo scholar Edina Bećirević (whose work Stern cites in the book) “misleading.

Nor is this the extent of it. Discussing the siege of Sarajevo, Stern refers to descriptions of the city as an “icon of contemporary atrocity” which attracts journalists who then present the population’s helplessness as a binary tale of good versus evil. It is not the truth that motivates them, but careerist entrepreneurial sensationalism. When she mentions Sarajevo’s 14,000 casualty count she cannot help include that the site of genocide was populated by “moral entrepreneurs” who flocked to the city during the atrocities. It is the commodification of the violence then, rather than the truth of genocide, that brings Sarajevo its notoriety.

The worst comes when Stern alleges that Bosnian Muslims themselves were responsible for at least some of the killing, which they supposedly did so that they could “persuade the international community to intervene militarily.” She writes: “There were a number of cases in which investigators concluded that Bosnian Muslim leadership had carried out attacks staged to look as if they were carried out by the Serbs.” It takes a lot of sifting around in her references to realize that the scholar whose research she cites is Bećirević, who has written a vehement denunciation of Stern’s book and the use of her own research in it.

Denying genocide is trendy nowadays. Peter Handke, an overt denier of the massacre of Bosnian Muslims was handed a Nobel Prize last year; it turned out that two members of the Nobel Prize Committee were influenced by certain conspiracy theories claiming Serbian crimes were exaggerated. What emerges after reading Stern’s account is a depiction of just how self-indulgent some elite academics can be in the construction of their brand and their research. Stern twists the impacts of trauma into a kind of research method, and everyone from the book’s publisher to its editor appear to have gone along with it. It is a terrible outcome. In the most lenient judgment, Stern’s book is an example of a former terror scholar at loose ends in a post-terror age, able to use her access to a captive war criminal to write a book whose ultimate conclusion is to cast doubt on established facts.

It’s a pernicious mix: the historical accounts of genocide altered through Stern’s subjective instincts developed in response to childhood trauma. Despite being a survivor of sexual violence, Stern shows little empathy for those who experienced trauma in Sarajevo. Her adoration is reserved instead for its architect. If Islam was the basis of producing terrorists in her earlier work, Muslims now are somehow complicit in their own genocide in this latest one. 

Slipshod and indulgent, Stern’s interlude with war crimes says little about suffering or evil. In the beginning of one of the initial chapters, she comes close to likening herself to Hannah Arendt, who also wrote about a war criminal in Eichmann in Jerusalem. It’s a grandiose comparison, but typical of Stern. In her masterful study, Arendt discusses the banality of evil. In Stern’s shabby work, the banality belongs to the efforts of a late-career academic whose flagging relevance muddies and misleads, all the while selling moral confusion as psychological complexity.